Arrival in Medellin came with a reputation that was two-fold for me; one from my recent watching of Netflix drama Narcos, and the other from Ben’s effusive praise of the city, having flown and spent some time there whilst I was home the in UK.
There’s a lot of Medellin to explore, and we had quite a few things lined up to do, and some time to play before we next needed to be somewhere, so a relatively long stay was booked at the Black Sheep Hostel, in the popular suburb of Poblado, a word of mouth recommendation.
A walking tour is more often than not the best way to get a good feel for a relatively large city, and the walking tour in Medellin came very highly recommended from anyone we’d spoken to that had passed through, and from Ben as well. Clocking in at around four and a half hours, that he was so keen to do it again spoke volumes for me, and it was one of the first things we did.
Our local guide – Camilo – was a local and we spent a brilliant afternoon in his company, exploring a fascinating city that he was more than a little proud of, but in a way that wasn’t without an appreciation for its struggles and flaws. As well as discussing the Famous Man From Medellin*, and the troubled past of the city that is intrinsically tied to his ‘career’, we discussed the history of Colombia as a whole and its famous politicians.
The central squares are littered with works by Colombia’s most famous artist and sculptor – Fernando Botero. These are bronze impressions of men, women and animals that – according to our guide – aren’t meant to be fat, they’re meant to be interesting plays with dimensions that can represent political criticism and humour**.
A pair of his works was the setting for the culmination of the tour, a bird that had been blown apart by a terrorist bomb in 1995, killing over 20 locals citizens. Instead of the mangled sculpture being removed and replaced, Botero insisted that it remained, and produced an identical new sculpture to stand next to it, displaying the locals willingness to stand up and reflect change beyond their chequered past, rather than washing it away. The passion and emotion with which Camilo spoke about this, and other stories of the past, was poignant, and was reflected in the population of the city that – perhaps more than any other city we’ve visited so far – is pleased, not perturbed, to see visiting ‘gringos’.
One morning, taking advantage of a sunny day, we took the cable car, which forms part of an expansive and excellent public transport system, up to the neighbourhood of ‘Santo Domingo. Whilst taking in the panoramic views of the sprawling city, a local teenager gave us a brief history of the area, which was once one of the most dangerous in the city and the virtually unchallenged territory of the narcos and their sicarios.
The metro/light rail system is the pride of the city, and was one of the first mass transit systems in the entire country, remaining the sole metro system. The locals love their metro so much that it is, amazingly, completely free from litter and graffiti. Camilo even said that they consider it rude to eat or drink on it, and crime like pick-pockiting is virtually unheard of. The comparison to examples I’ve seen in ‘developed’ cities like New York, Barcelona, or even some sections of London’s Underground is startling. Taking such pride in something like a public transport system, so taken for granted in other places, is a fantastic example of a city and, indeed, a country that is determined to throw off the shackles of a reputation fostered in the late 20th century, and take its place in the modern world. That Colombia has gone from circa 50,000 TOTAL tourists in 2000 to over 4.5 million in 2016 is, in equal parts, staggering, impressive and completely understandable.
Perhaps our most enjoyable afternoon in Medellin was spent in Parque Explora, a vast and brilliantly interactive science museum and aquarium. Having just as much as fun as the visitors 10-15 years our junior, we explored the mysteries of time and physics, and even heard all the common misconceptions about red-bellied piranhas.
Another highlight was, after exploring some of the popular late-night haunts of Poblado until some of the smaller hours, getting McDonald’s delivered to our hostel through the Colombian equivalent of Just Eat.***
From Medellin, we flew down to Colombia’s largest and capital city, Bogota. Here we went on another interesting walking tour that included the delightful local delicacy of chicha**** and popular past-time of tejo*****. We also took the hostel’s ‘party bus’ to a nightclub for the accurately-named ‘Gringo Tuesday’, where we swapped stories with a sea of fellow travelers, and I terrified the small smattering of locals with my diabolical attempts at salsa.
We took the cable car up to Monserrate, an elevated church that provided a beautiful view over the city. Colombia isn’t the most tranquil country in the world, its cities in particular, so the peace and relative silence found there at 3,152m above sea level was a welcome treat.
The walk to the bottom of the cable car also threw up another treat, the presence of a ‘100 Montaditos’ restaurant in the bottom of some student accommodation. This Spanish chain, that I first sampled in Barcelona, has discovered a way of eating that gels with my tastes more than any other I’ve come across in all my 25 & ¾ years on this planet – lots of tiny sandwiches. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a 100 Montaditos, Have Beard, Will Travel gives you a 100%, unfaltering guarantee that you will love it.******
After getting our fill of Bogota, it was time to head south again, getting nearer to Ecuador. Eschewing expensive flights, we begrudgingly returned to the thrilling, stimulating endeavour that is long-distance Latin American bus travel*******, taking an all-day affair to the city of Cali. After two days there – the highlight of which was seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the cinema, which should tell you all you need to know about its offerings – we then took an overnight affair to the small town of Ipiales, crossed the border on foot and then finally bussed to the Ecuadorian capital, Quito.
We’ve hot-footed here to meet one of this blog’s most avid readers and biggest fans, Ben’s Mum, who will spend around 8 days here in Ecuador with us. I dare not give her an official blog introduction without her express verbal permission, so you’ll just have to tune in next time and see, won’t you.
Ta-ta for now.
*This was his way of mentioning Pablo Escobar to us, for fear of passers-by hearing his name and misinterpreting Camilo’s words
**To be honest though, a lot of them do just look really, really fat.
***No, it wasn’t desperately warm and the chips hadn’t survived the journey particularly well, but come on it was DELIVERY MCDONALDS for pete’s sake.
****A bizarre, slightly fizzy fermented fruit drink served by the bowl.
*****A game that involves throwing heavy metal weights at small packets of gunpowder pushed into clay, in the hopes of making them explode. Drinking encouraged.
******Unless you’re some kind of sociopath that doesn’t like sandwiches, in which case you are beyond help.